- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Fleeting are the days when funeral directors force-feed mourning families strict burial plans, outlining minimal options for caskets, music and decor. Mourners today can be soothed by the sounds of orchestras, the sight of bursting bubbles and punctuated services. Some funeral directors are turning into funeral decorators, happy to cater to family wishes or whims.
If families want their loved ones shipped to the moon, funeral directors can make reservations with Celestis Inc., a Texas-based company that prepares the cremated remains in flight-ready, lipstick-sized capsules and launches them into space on commercial rockets.
Susan Schonfeld, Celestis spokeswoman, said the satellites containing cremated remains orbit Earth for about 40 to 60 years. "When the satellite comes down, the cremated remains also go down like a blazing star," Ms. Schonfeld said.
Those with an aversion to funeral homes don't have to go inside. The G.W. Thompson Chapel of Remembrance in Spartanburg, S.C., offers drive-through funerals. Approximately one-third of its clients prefer placing their loved ones in a large picture window with flowers and artifacts from their lives.
The chapel offers regular services, but provides the drive-through options for grieving family and friends who may be in wheelchairs or do not have time to attend the service.
For decades, funerals were basically indistinguishable, even across ethnic and religious lines. The traditional American funeral consisted of four parts: a viewing of the deceased followed by a religious service, a burial service and a gathering of family and friends at the home.
Today, Mr. Sullivan says, funerals tend to be shorter: "There is just a funeral with a family gathering or a cremation with a memorial service."
The break in tradition also is accompanied by an increased demand for more personalized services.
"It is important that the funeral is meaningful to them," says John P. Chaplain, vice president of Robert A. Pumphrey Funeral Homes in Bethesda and Rockville. "Funeral directors no longer dictate how a funeral should be families do."
The sight of the lone organ player in the church is becoming less common. John Krtil, president of Krtil Funeral Homes, said he works with families that prefer famous artists, live quartets or orchestras at the funeral home, church or cemetery.
Jim Sullivan, owner of Arthur J. Sullivan and Co. in San Francisco, recently helped a family provide bubbles to funeral guests.
Requests to display or distribute videos, photos and keepsakes of the deceased are also on the rise. If the deceased was an aspiring musician, funeral directors can provide a compact disc of his music to each guest. When a vice president of Atlantic Records passed away, Mr. Krtil said, the funeral was filled with voices of famous artists.
Another shift relates to ethnicity. "Many years ago, you would only cater to certain nationalities, because Greeks would go to one funeral home and Italians would go to another," Mr. Sullivan says. "It is not like that anymore."
Religious beliefs about cremation have changed. A study by the Cremation Association of North America found that cremations in the United States rose from 9.2 percent of all deceased in 1980 to 27.25 percent in 2001.
Jack Springer, executive director of the cremation association, attributes the rise in part to the fact that more elderly are dying away from home. "It is simpler in their minds to be cremated versus shipping their remains," he says.
Greg Mason, president of Greg L. Mason Funeral Home in Miami, spent his entire life either around or in the funeral home industry, until he founded his own business in 1995. Mr. Mason said families are taking advantage of the flexibility cremations provide. That started changing once the Holy See lifted its ban on cremations in May 1963.
Some families scatter ashes around the world, in places that have held special meaning to the deceased.
Others opt for "companion urns," which offer a way to divide remains among each family member. In the past, remains of the deceased traditionally would be kept in one container.
Mr. Mason's funeral home even offers custom-made jewelry, like necklaces, with vials of ashes. "In the case of deceased infants, mothers may want to wear their ashes around their necks," Mr. Mason says.
"People have gotten away from viewing cremations as creepy and now see the cremated remains as memorabilia."
Gary Laderman, a professor and author of "Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in 20th Century America," says traditions that have emerged from the radical 1960s include shorter and more personalized services, broader ethnic and religious rites and the acceptability of cremations.
Mr. Laderman referenced "The American Way of Death" by Jessica Mitford, a book published in 1963 that he said brought attention to the funeral industry. Ms. Mitford said funeral directors invented new traditions as marketing tools. Although Mr. Laderman does not agree, he recognizes the impact Ms. Mitford's book has had.
He says Ms. Mitford's book sparked federal investigations into the funeral home industry.
"These investigations determined that the American funeral was just like any other consumer interaction or economic exchange," Mr. Laderman says. "The consumer should have choices."
In general, the 1960s began a push for an across-the-board re-examination of established customs, Mr. Laderman says: "It was a time where people questioned authority and tradition."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide